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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — If a devastating hurricane's road to recovery is difficult in a small Caribbean island, it's even tougher if one lives in an island off the island, as residents of Vieques have found out.
Many areas in Puerto Rico have been able to recover from Hurricane Maria more than a year after the disaster took place, but Vieques is not one of them.
Vieques is a smaller island located about seven miles off the Southeast coast of the mainland of Puerto Rico, known to tourists as a vacation spot sprinkled with beautiful beaches and with a casual, small-town vibe. To travel between the mainland of Puerto Rico and Vieques, people have to take a ferry or a flight.
But being “an island off an island,” as some describe it, has disproportionately slowed down recovery efforts for the roughly 9,000 Puerto Ricans living in Vieques.
While it took the power authority 11 months to restore full power in Puerto Rico, families living in Vieques continue to wait. The power authority has no current plans to restore the underwater cable that transmitted electricity from the Puerto Rico mainland to Vieques before Maria hit, instead aiming to put in place a new system using microgrids and renewable energy that could prove more resilient ahead of future storms.
But for now, the small island is running entirely on generators.
Ibia Santos is one of the many Vieques residents still reeling from the ripple effects of the storm as if it happened yesterday, struggling to rebuild and making up for economic losses. Santos owns a small business renting beach chairs and selling food to beachgoers.
For over a year, Santos has lacked a secure home since Maria brought down her house of nearly 20 years. The first few months, Santos tried to live among the home's debris. But unprecedented rashes, allergies and a rat infestation led Santos to set a camping tent near the beach. Since then, the tent has become her new temporary home.
“I felt like I was living in Jumanji,” recalled Santos, referring to the movie where children brave a jungle full of animals and danger. “At least here in the beach I was able to feel better, in terms of my rash and my sinuses.”
After heavy rains, Santos needs to clean her tent’s walls with chlorine. The rains leave “a weird fungus-like thing” around the tent, she explained.
People like Vickie Michaud are trying to help Vieques residents like Santos through Hope Builders, a nonprofit organization that works to rebuild homes. So far, Hope Builders has a waiting list of about 300 people hoping to get the resources needed to reconstruct their destroyed houses.
“I think being an island off an island makes things extremely difficult. I've heard people refer to Vieques as the heck island, which just boggles my mind,” Michaud said. “There's so many people in dire need of a home that's not leaking, not raining on them, that has windows.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 166,000 homes in Puerto Rico still need to be rebuilt. They don’t know how many are waiting for repairs in Vieques specifically.
Haronid Cruz Felix, director of communications for the municipality of Vieques, told NBC News that one of the main reasons why Vieques’ recovery has been so slow is due to the low estimates FEMA came up with while assessing how much it would cost to repair post-hurricane damages.
FEMA approved a little over $8 million in recovery funds for Vieques — which is essentially what the municipality lost in sales and the tax revenue known as IVU, as well as in damages to the public community health center, known by its Spanish initials, CDT. This is despite the fact that the federal agency stated that the small island had close to $400 million in total damages.
Vieques needs at least $65 million to repair homes in at least four different communities and other public infrastructure, according to municipal documents submitted to Puerto Rico’s Housing Department as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program focused on home reparations and reconstruction, including vouchers and individual housing assistance.
Officials in Vieques are still waiting to hear back from federal authorities for the approval and disbursement of HUD and FEMA funds.
FEMA financed a $2.9 million mobile dialysis center that was installed by the Puerto Rican government in early October. The center, which is set to start operating before the end of the year, would serve approximately 12 patients in need of such treatment who currently live in Vieques and have to travel multiple times a week to the mainland of Puerto Rico to receive treatment.
Cruz Felix said that before the hurricane at least two dozen dialysis patients lived in Vieques but “many died or moved to the U.S.” after Hurricane Maria.
In the meantime, Puerto Rican public officials have thrown around the idea of prioritizing places like Vieques for new renewable energy installations, hoping to make Vieques and other parts of Puerto Rico more resilient and self-sufficient.
Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said in a press release, “Our goal is that in five years 40 percent of our energy is generated from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.”
While Vieques’ slow recovery continues without a clear end date, residents like Santos are clinging their hopes to the small improvements they see in their daily lives. For Santos, it’s a small uptick in tourism.
“Vieques is a tourist goldmine and that’s because business owners like myself have done their part to do so,” she said. "Last time I checked the stats, like 10,000 people are expected to come during the winter.”
Cruz Felix agreed with Santos that there has been tentative progress.
"It's true, it's starting to recover. But it's still too slow, " said Cruz Felix about Vieques' tourism. "The W Hotels and other hostelry still remain closed."
Santos said she has been able to gain back most of the extra money she spent in unexpected post-hurricane expenses, such as fuel to operate her generator and ice to keep food and provisions refrigerated.
But Santos still hasn’t been able to put together enough money to rebuild her destroyed home.
With the help of Hope Builders, she’s been able to fund raise $1,000, though that’s still not enough for repairs, Santos said.
After FEMA closed her case and she was unable to get housing repair aid, Santos “decided to not beg anymore and concentrate in my business.”
“When I start to do good, and I know I will," said Santos, "I’m gonna start building my house (cement) block by block, little by little.”
Nicole Acevedo reported from New York and Puerto Rico, and Nirma Hasty, Brock Stoneham and John Makely reported from Vieques.